Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey
Community Highlights
For the City of Boston

The Boston Foundation

Media Contact
Ann Kurkjian
Phone: 617-723-7415; fax: 617-589-3616
Address: One Boston Place, 24th floor, Boston, MA 02108
Email address:
Web address:

Sample size

(includes over sample of 200 in 4 neighborhoods to increase the number of Latino respondents)

Survey Area                        
City of Boston

Community Description

574, 285

1990 Census; Boston Redevelopment Authority         

White              59%
Black              20%
Asian                5%
Hispanic         11%
Other                5%

1990 Census; Boston Redevelopment Authority         

18-34                          40.8%
35-49                          22.0%
50-64                          13.9%
65+                             14.2%        

1990 Census; Boston Redevelopment Authority         

Understanding Social Capital in Boston

After surviving near bankruptcy in the 1950s and the school desegregation crisis of the 1970s, Boston today is probably as socially and economically healthy as any city in the United States.  Joblessness and crime have been steadily dropping to historic lows over the past decade.  The work of community organizations, business leaders, and public agencies has helped residents to renew many previously neglected urban neighborhoods.

Two important features of the city are important to consider when thinking about the bases for social capital among Boston residents.  First, Boston has a relatively large number of universities, colleges, and other post-secondary schools (technical institutes, vocational schools, etc.).  This factor is related to two important demographic characteristics of Boston:  (1) city residents are highly educated compared to most urban areas and (2) city residents are disproportionately young adults, many of whom are students or recent graduates.  The relatively higher education level would suggest relatively high civic participation and political involvement compared to similar urban residents, and the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey data seem to support this notion.  On the other hand, the disproportionately large number of young adults is typically a more mobile population than older residents.  In addition, problems with housing affordability (approaching those of New York and San Francisco) often serve as a further stimulus to mobility among younger residents. Lack of residential stability can be a barrier to civic engagement.

Second, Boston has witnessed a substantial growth in both the number and diversity of residents with Hispanic, Latino, and Caribbean backgrounds.  The percentage of Hispanic/Latino residents based on the 1990 Census that are provided on the accompanying page are almost certainly lower than the actual numbers today.  The Hispanic/Latino population in Boston is comprised of an increasingly diverse range of national origins, including Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, and other countries.  In addition to these groups, Boston has growing populations of residents from such diverse places as Haiti, the Cape Verde Islands, and Eastern Europe, and a fairly wide range of residents from Asian countries.  The result is an ethnic mix that is very diverse for most cities this size. In addition, Boston hosts a relatively large proportion of non-American citizens, a population that is hesitant to become deeply involved in its local community.

Given these factors, Boston may be similar to many urban areas in terms of the need for a high level of “bridging” social capital, that is, forging bonds across social groups with different cultural backgrounds.  Yet its continually growing diversity, and the large percentage of younger, more mobile residents, suggests Boston may face a bigger challenge in this respect than many urban areas of similar sizes.  Contrast these factors with a highly educated population, a Boston tradition of liberal politics and high civic involvement, and a large number (and great diversity) of organizations devoted to important community issues, and you have a fairly complex picture of social capital in Boston.

Survey results


Responses to the Boston survey compare favorably to the national sample on several key dimensions:

DIVERSITY: Bostonians have diverse friendships that cut across racial, class, religious and sexual orientation differences. 77% of respondents scored high to medium on an index of diversity of friendships, compared to 64% of the national sample.

TOLERANCE AND TRUST: 80% of all Boston respondents expressed high or medium trust of racial or ethnic groups other than their own, a pattern similar to the national sample. On another dimension of racial trust, Boston compares favorably. Close to 70% of Bostonians were comfortable with immigrants' efforts to achieve equal rights, compared to only about half of the national sample.

INTEREST/ACTIVISM IN ELECTORAL POLITICS: 68% of Boston respondents scored high/medium on an index of involvement/interest in electoral politics (including interest in politics/national affairs, and familiarity with government officials) - compared to 63% of the national sample.

PARTICIPATION OR INTEREST IN PROTEST POLITICS: 60% of Boston respondents scored high or medium on an index that measured signing of a petition, attendance at a political rally, participation in a demonstration, participation in a civil rights organization or a public interest group over the previous year. About half of the national respondents had the same scores.

ACTIVISM IN THE ARTS. One-quarter of Boston respondents reported being involved in an arts group, and 19% of Boston respondents reported volunteering for such an organization. In contrast 17% of national respondents reported such involvement, and only 12% of national respondents volunteered for the arts. Bostonians reported a high rate of actual participation in arts/cultural activities - an average of 7.8 times over the previous year compared to 6.8 times for national respondents.

SOCIAL EFFICACY. Bostonians were more likely than their national counterparts to collaborate with their neighbors to "fix something". 41% of the Boston respondents said they had done so, compared to only 32% of the respondents in the national sample.

ACCESS TO AND USE OF INTERNET. 60% of Bostonians said they had access to the Internet at home, compared to 55% of the national sample. As is true across the entire sample, access is found especially among upper income (81% of those with incomes above $75,000), those under the age of 34 (73%), white (62%)and Asian (72%) respondents.


2/3 of the Boston respondents said they made donations to non-religious charities - a pattern similar to other sites. However, the proportion of Bostonians who gave to religious causes (63%) was lower than in the national sample - 70% of all respondents reported that type of donation.

The lower rate of giving to religious causes in Boston reflects a lower rate of participation in church-related activities - 59% of Boston respondents rated high or medium on a "faith index," compared to 67% of the national sample.

As was true in other locations, about half (47%) of the Boston respondents said that they had encountered barriers to becoming involved in the community. Almost 90% of those who reported barriers had problems related to their jobs, such as child care or long work hours, compared to three-fourths of those reporting barriers in other places. A high proportion of Bostonians who reported barriers (83%) felt that they lacked information about how to get involved, compared to two-thirds of national respondents.

It is interesting to note that white and non-Hispanic black residents in Boston reported similar levels of involvement with neighbors to work on local improvements. They also showed similar patterns of involvement with faith organizations and similar patterns of voter registration. Hispanic/Latino respondents were less likely to report that they engaged in any of these activities, and they were more likely to report occupational and informational barriers to doing so.

Clearly, the complex reasons underlying these numbers merit further exploration. For example, these findings may partially reflect the fact that a substantial percentage of the Hispanic/Latino respondents (34%) were not American citizens, compared to 13% of black respondents and only 5% of whites. In addition, more of the Hispanic/Latino respondents were relative newcomers to Boston - almost half (46%) had lived in the city for five years or less, compared to about one-third of the white and black respondents. Finally, the Hispanic/Latino respondents were younger than those in other ethnic groups.


Most respondents in Boston said they trusted people in their community "a lot or somewhat" - they trusted their fellow attendees at places of worship (88%), their co-workers (82%), their neighbors (77%), the police (78%) and the local store employees (71%). Black and Hispanic/Latino respondents in Boston expressed lower levels of trust on some of these dimensions, reflecting ongoing challenges that those communities face. Boston is not unique in this regard - this pattern was true for the national sample as well.

Like people in all large cities, some Bostonians express caution about dealing with others. Thus, it is not surprising that the respondents in the national sample expressed somewhat higher levels of trust, ranging from 92% who trusted fellow worshipers, to 76% who trusted store employees "a lot or somewhat".


For decades, the Boston Foundation has invested in the programs, organizations, and people that strengthen the sense of community among the people of Greater Boston. Its mission and policies support the excellent community work being done throughout the city that encourages people to be responsible for themselves and concerned about one another. Social capital, as measured in this survey, is fundamental to the successful implementation of this core mission - it is a building block for healthy children and families, vibrant communities, and social justice.

A few examples of organizations that are using various social capital tools to strengthen the sense of community throughout Greater Boston include:

Bonding and bridging social capital
(linkages within and across diverse communities and groups)
The Arts Fund - strengthening diverse cultural organizations

Boston Schoolyard Initiative - neighborhood efforts to design and develop local schoolyards

Boston Community Building Curriculum - leadership training for neighborhood residents

Mutual Assistance Associations - strengthening community organizations developed by and on behalf of refugees and immigrants

New Economy Initiative: Using Technology to Empower Community - tackling the digital divide by improving community capacity to access technology resources and jobs

Advocacy and social justice
Latino Health Institute

Boston Lesbian and Gay Funding Partnership

Boston Parent Organizing Network

Research and dialogue that promote understanding of and creation of social capital

Community Matters Roundtable and Monograph Series

Boston Community Building Network's Indicators Project - using data to drive community dialogue and change